What is cannabis oil and how does it help treat epilepsy?

What exactly is cannabis oil and is it illegal? (Picture: Getty)

The debate over the use of cannabis oil has reared its head after the high-profile case of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell.

Billy, who suffers from severe epilepsy, had his supply confiscated by the Home Office as he and his mother returned from Canada.

But the Home Secretary later granted an emergency licence allowing use of the oil in the 12-year-old’s case after Billy was rushed to hospital in a critical condition after suffering multiple seizures.

So what is cannabis oil and why is it such a controversial issue?

Backlash – there have been calls for a change in UK law after the case of Billy Caldwell, whose cannabis oil supply was confiscated (Picture: PA/AP)

1. What is cannabis oil?

Cannabis oil is used by sufferers of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and cancer and is widely credited with various medical benefits.

Produced using steam distillation to extract active substances from cannabis plants and typically consumed orally.


Its effects come from two cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant: Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

A low concentration version is available to buy over the counter in the UK – provided it contains less than 0.0.5% THC.

2. Is it legal?

The oil is illegal in Britain despite being available elsewhere but campaigners are calling for a change in the law.

There are two prescription drugs which use cannabinoids available in the UK.

Sativex uses CBD and THC to relieve the pain of muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis and Nabilone is sometimes used to relieve sickness in people having chemotherapy for cancer.

Medicinal benefits – the topic is controversial but cannabis can help with a range of problems (Picture: Getty)

3. What are its medicinal benefits?

The topic remains controversial, but cannabis can help with problems like appetite loss and relief of nausea during chemotherapy, for example.

It is also widely used as an anti-inflammatory to manage chronic pain, such as with arthritis and rheumatism, and is often preferred to conventional painkillers.

According to the Epilepsy Foundation website, there is evidence that cannabis can be helpful in controlling seizures, especially for difficult-to-control conditions like Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) in children and adults and Dravet syndrome in children.

Trials of cannabis-based drugs are ongoing in the UK for a host of medical conditions.

The NHS said: “We won’t know whether these treatments are effective until the trials have finished.”

4. So if it helps people, why is it illegal?

THC is a psychoactive ingredient which produces the classic effects of cannabis use, making users feel “high”.

It’s this compound which is banned over fears it can raise the risk of psychotic illnesses and its potential for addiction.

According to the NHS The risk of harm from cannabis is higher if you use regularly from a young age, as your brain is growing and still forming connections, according to the NHS.